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2009 Rewind: Generational Showdown

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Penguins

*Part 3 of a 5-part series reliving the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup championship on the 10th anniversary. 

The second round featured a matchup that the hockey world had been anticipating since 2005. It featured two generational talents and the two faces of the new NHL - Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin - going head-to-head in the postseason for the first time. 

Throw in signature talents on both sides - Pittsburgh: Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Marc-Andre Fleury; Washington: Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Brooks Laich, Semyon Varlamov - add the incendiary rivalry between Pittsburgh and Washington, and the recipe was there for a historic series. 

"I've never been around a playoff series with so much hype, with the superstars going at it," 38-year-old veteran Bill Guerin said. "For me it was amazing." 

And both teams delivered on that epic expectation. 

"I wanted it really bad," Crosby said. "We knew how good Washington was. We knew the spotlight was on that series. It was the matchup everyone wanted to see."

Crosby opened the scoring in the series with a goal in Game 1 at Washington, but the Capitals would hold on for a 3-2 victory thanks to 34 saves and spectacular goaltending from Varlamov. 

Game 2 provided the one of the most memorable moments in NHL history. Once again Crosby opened the scoring with a power-play goal at the crease in the first period. Ovechkin answered with a goal of his own in the second period to even the score, 1-1. Eight minutes later Crosby scored his second goal of the game, once again at the blue paint, to give the Pens a 2-1 lead. That back-and-forth would continue to repeat. 

David Steckel tied the game in the second period. Bu it was the third period that provided all the fireworks. 

Ovechkin scored twice in a 2:29-minute span to record a hat trick and give Washington a 4-2 lead. But the Pens did not quit. Not to be outdone, Crosby batted an airborne puck into the net with 30.4 seconds left in regulation to record a hat trick of his own. 

Like two heavyweight boxers exchanging blow-for-blow, Crosby and Ovechkin went goal-for-goal. However, the Caps prevailed, 4-3, to take a 2-0 series lead as the venue shifted to Pittsburgh. 
 
"You hate to waste a hat trick performance," Mark Eaton said. "'Sid' played a great game. Unfortunately, we weren't able to win. Even though we came back down 0-2 we still had a positive feel.

"We knew it was far from over."

Ovechkin continued his torrid goal scoring streak with the opening tally in Game 3, his fifth already in the series. The Pens answered with a goal from Ruslan Fedotenko in the second period. As the third period wound down the score remained 1-1. 

A late penalty on Semin gave Pittsburgh its sixth power play of the game. And it finally made it count as Malkin cut into the high slot and buried a snap shot to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead with 4:49 remaining. 

But the Pens found themselves killing a penalty late in the game while desperately trying to hold onto the lead. Backstrom found the puck at the side of the net and scored to draw the game even, 2-2, with 1:50 to play. 

As the game proceeded to overtime, the Pens' championship hopes shook with every Washington shot. A loss for Pittsburgh would essentially mean the end of its season as overcoming a 3-0 hole and winning four-straight against the Capitals seemed highly unlikely. 

Over 11 minutes into the extra session there was a faceoff in the Capitals zone. Crosby won the draw back to Eaton on the blue line. He pushed it across to Letang at the midpoint. Letang's one-timer went off of the post and in to give Pittsburgh a 3-2 victory. 

"That one I would say is one of my most important goals," Letang said. "Especially when you're down 0-2 to a team like that. So, I think it was huge."

It took the Capitals a mere 36 seconds into Game 4 to take a 1-0 lead from Backstrom. But the Pens responded with three-straight goals to pull ahead, 3-1. Washington would draw within a goal, 4-3, early in the third period, but Max Talbot sealed the game with a late third-period tally as the Pens evened the series, 2-2, with a 5-3 victory at home. 

Though the Pens won the battle, the fear was they may have lost the war. Late in the first period, Ovechkin and Gonchar were chasing a loose puck in the corner of the Pens zone. Ovechkin skated through Gonchar knee-to-knee, which sent the Pens defenseman twirling into the air and down on the ice. He left the game and his availability for the rest of the series was in doubt. 

Defeating the deep and talented Capitals was already a difficult task. But doing so without your No. 1 defenseman and power-play quarterback was even more daunting. 

There was little time to celebrate, or rest, as Game 5 came on back-to-back nights. It was now a best-of-3 series and the contest in Washington became paramount. The Pens knew, not having home-ice advantage, that they would have to win at least one game in Washington. 

After a scoreless first period, Staal gave the Pens a 1-0 lead in the second period. Both teams traded goals and the Pens had a 3-2 lead late in the third period. But Ovechkin notched his seventh goal of the series with 4:08 left in regulation to force yet another overtime. 

Early into overtime Malkin carried the puck down the far side and around Hall-of-Fame Russian Sergei Fedorov. His attempted backhand pass through the slot went off the stick of Capitals defenseman Tom Poti and through Varlamov to give Pittsburgh a third-straight win and 3-2 series lead. 

The Pens had a chance to close out the series at home. That opportunity was thwarted by Steckel's overtime goal in Game 6 to force a decisive, do-or-die Game 7 showdown in the nation's capital. The hockey world tuned in to see the dramatic conclusion to an already legendary series. 

The pivotal moment of the game, and perhaps the entire season for Pittsburgh, occurred in the opening minute of the game. Ovechkin, who would finish the series with an incredible eight goals, sneaked behind the Pens defense and collected the puck for a breakaway. 

Ovechkin deked and tried to go glove side, but Fleury flexed out and snatched the puck. In the biggest moment of the year and on the biggest stage, Fleury delivered the save of his career. 

"The biggest moment was Game 7 when 'Flower' stopped Ovechkin on that breakaway," Guerin said. "There was a lot of back-and-forth, overtime goals, things like that. But that save right then and there in Game 7 set the table for us and then we could breathe and play our game."

And that's exactly what the Pens did. Boosted by the gutsy return of Gonchar from a knee injury, the Pens defenseman set up Crosby's first of two goals in the game to open the scoring. That was followed by goals from Craig Adams, Guerin, Letang and Staal. By the halfway point of the second period, Pittsburgh had built a 5-0 lead. 

As the clock ticked down to zeroes, the Pens prevailed on the road with a 6-2 triumph and a ticket to the Eastern Conference Final. 

In a battle between generational superstars, two title contenders, a historic rivalry and a series that somehow managed to exceed the hype, Pittsburgh walked out the victors. 

"We played a couple overtimes, we hit each other and we scored a lot," Malkin said. "Ovechkin scored a hat trick. Sid scored a hat trick. One game I scored in overtime. It was amazing. I think one of my toughest series in my life."

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